A fair bet could be made on there not being many people capable of writing a psychedelic concept album about the golden age of British Wrestling. Even fewer would want to attempt such a feat. This might explain why there has not, until now, been one. So how – and why – does a person come up with such a thing as Nine And A Half Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early ’80s? On regrouping with its contrarian originator Luke Haines in a Camden cafe for a chat about wrestling, rock’n’roll and the passing of time, it seemed as good an opening gambit as any.
“Goodness me,” muses Haines from beneath a hat as he settles in to his subject. “I sort of contain these ideas. I have lots of them, flinging around my overactive bonce, and I had this idea about wrestling that I thought I could maybe – because I think I’m some kind of polymath, and probably I’m not at all – I thought I could do a screenplay, or a radio play. I write books; I could do that, definitely. I could do a book about wrestling, even though there’s been a perfectly good one by Simon Garfield, which is the sort of bible of these things. But then I thought, Fuck this, you make records; you’re meant to do a record about it.”
He acknowledges that the worlds of rock’n’roll and wrestling make for peculiar bedfellows. “There wasnt really a correlation between Mick McManus and rock’n’roll. I’ve had to weld it, frantically. And from gestation through development, its scope altered. It was originally all going to be about Gorgeous George and be called A Requiem To Gorgeous George, who was Kendo Nagasaki’s manager. But there wasn’t really enough material about him available.”
Why him? “I felt a kind of weird empathy with Gorgeous George. He was very gay; I’m not. He was very flamboyant and camp, which I’m not. And he was the manager of Kendo Nagasaki, which I’m not. But… I felt a weird empathy. It seemed like he was kind of bullied by the wrestling fraternity for his exoticness, if you like. He was quite mouthy. Even though he was Kendo Nagasaki’s manager, and he was the toughest guy in town, I felt that the bullied needed to have someone write a song about them. So it kind of started from there.” He pauses. “And then it became psychedelic.” But of course.
He stresses that “It was a very specific period of wrestling I was writing about as well, which was British wrestling; I wasn’t into American WWF and all that crap. And it was written, not from a child’s perspective, but it was the thing I was interested in when I was a kid, before I was interested in rock’n’roll, so maybe around the ages of 9, 10, 11. Also it was partly to do with my dad being quite ill at the moment. It was something he used to take me to. So I think that I stuck the two together. That dredged up the memory of it.
It’s not the first time the sometime Auteurs front man and Black Box Recorder founder’s world has touched on this very particular form of entertainment. “We used an image of wrestling before, with Black Box Recorder, with Adrian Street on the front cover of the England Made Me album,” he remembers. “And that’s where it got me thinking about it all again all those years ago, and investigating these people’s lives. And it was a tough life that a lot of them lived. When I watched it as a kid, when everyone watched it, in the ’50s and the ’60s but especially in the ’70s when it was on World Of Sport, and it was quite a big thing in the afternoon, this was the age of pre-irony. People believed that Kendo Nagasaki had trained as a samurai and had occult powers. I believed this because I was 10. These men had a genuine kind of aura about them, and people held them in awe. Well, I did, anyway.”
Haines clearly enjoys the subject and can talk at length about the wrestlers and wrestling industry figures who feature on the album, from Giant Haystacks through Catweazle to Big Daddy. “I wanted to do something that had an affection and warmth to it. Weirdly I havent done that much that could be seen as being affectionate. I wanted to look at something and, rather than it being the usual kind of acerbic – whatever; insert the word misanthropic – I wanted to do something slightly different.”
He writes mainly from memory, which he credits as the reason why the album’s lyrics are less a historical document and more a psychedelic treatment of characters who were themselves fantastical creations, yet for whom he has respect. “The only living ones are Kendo, Adrian Street… Mick McManus is incredibly old, Haystacks and Big Daddy are both dead… I think Rollerball Rocco is still alive but he’s in bad health. Even though it was all staged as some kind of pantomime, it was a tough, hard sport. People got really injured.”
The first song on the album, Inside The Mind Of Rollerball Rocco, is about a fictionalised meeting between Les Kellett and Rollerball Rocco, the latter of whom was a younger wrestler. “A blue-eye was a good guy, a heel was a bad guy. He was a heel. He was from Bradford or somewhere, but his whole schtick was to pretend to be American; he had a porno moustache and a headband round his head. He was permanently kind of angry. Les Kellett didn’t start wrestling till he was 58 years old. He was really well loved, and he started in the late ’50s and by the ’70s he was still going. He invested the money he made into a transport cafe in Bradford. He kept animals outside that were in really bad knick; and apparently it was the worst food. The song has Kellett as a swami, a sufi, a mystic, and it’s the beginning of the whole kind of acid trip of the album where Les gives the lysergic sacrament to Rollerball…”
It’s an album on which food references abound, but just like the wrestlers, these are specific to place and time. That was a slightly subconscious thing, Haines explains. “The Liver Sausage Sandwich was what I used to have for my tea, as a child, every Saturday afternoon,” he remembers, “while he was watching the wrestling. It’s done me no harm – it’s made me the man I am today.”
This world of pantomime wrestling wasn’t for everyone, he concedes. “It would be foolish to say it was anything other than a working class sport, fodder for the working classes. My mum and dad were certainly not middle class,” he says. “My dad was a civil servant and my mum was a housewife. And it was on ITV. There was always a slight resentment from my mum that we’d have to watch ITV because she thought ITV was a bit beneath us.” For his part, he watched wrestling as entertainment rather than sport, and he doesnt consider himself to be a sports fan. “Cricket’s the only sport I’m into. I’m only into sports in long trousers now. Anything that involves short trousers is frankly not a sport in my eyes.”
Out of all these larger than life characters, he picks Kendo Nagasaki as his favourite. “I like this idea of the samurai mystic,” he says. “He was a masked man who didn’t speak. He has a website that goes on about all the good work he does, healing the world and stuff. I’ve never really seen how knocking seven shades of shit out of someone is going to be seen as a charitable act. But (saying Kendo is your favourite) is a bit predictable – it’s almost like saying your favourite album is Revolver by The Beatles. I have a soft spot for Haystacks as well – he was almost not a human.”
Are any of the wrestlers aware of the album? “Theres no correlation, so what’s the point? They wouldn’t get it. Mick McManus is 87 years old. He’s been a wrestler all his life. He’s from New Cross. He’s not remotely interested in psychedelic albums about wrestling. They would probably think it wasn’t taking their sport seriously. It does take it seriously, but obviously with affection.” And taking his cue from Nagasaki’s mysticism, Haines’ added psychedelia removes the project decisively from the source material. “It is more a reimagining than an adaptation. The psychedelia goes back to the irony thing, where we now live in a post-ironic age, where you can only really do rock’n’roll in an ironic way. If you do anything else you’re seen as an idiot. So the logical thing to do, almost from a child’s point of view, was to take the whole thing and give it a lysergic treatment. That made total sense to me. It’s essentially putting wrestlers into psychedelic situations.” He pauses. “Simple.” He takes a satisfied sip from his cup.
Does he think maybe people just wont get it? “I’m an artist. I do what I like! I don’t think about audiences. It’s not my problem. If you’re an artist you go with the ideas you have. You don’t think, ‘I wonder if I do this record, enough people will like it? Nah, I’m not going to do it because enough people dont like it.'” And anyway, he says, people seem to. “It will appeal to 40-year-old men,” he reasons. “I’m a 44-year-old man. I write about stuff from a 44-year-old man’s point of view. I write about stuff that’s interesting to me.”
Haines’ other project coming to light is a collaboration with a man in his 50s, Cathal Coughlan. It’s called The North Sea Scrolls. A 2011 Edinburgh Fringe debut was followed by two dates in Ireland. Finishing touches, it is mooted, are being put to an album, and tour dates in 2012 are expected. How did this all come to pass?
“Cathal and I had a mutual friend, Andrew Mueller, a travel writer and sometime music journalist, and he was very keen to bring the two of us together,” Haines recounts. “He felt that if we met wed create some furious demented black hole or something, and good things would come about. I’d met Cathal before and I think we had a long conversation about David Crosby. He looked slightly bemused as I talked at him about the greatness of the Cros. So from that point on we’ve felt we could come up with something together. We’ve written this thing with Andrew which is about these revelations we’ve discovered, of secret knowledge of the world, particularly England and Ireland and Australia as those are our native countries.” It sounds like the beginnings of a three-men-went-into-a-bar joke. “Well it did start like that; an Irishman, an Australian and an Englishman meet in a pub and tell a few tall stories. A sort of a freakout.”
Who does what? “I’m strumming, Cathal’s going berserk on keyboards, we have a cello player with us, and Andrew is the narrator. He stands at a lectern with a gavel and announces each song and describes how we’ve come upon the knowledge of each song. And then we play our new secret history of the world as told to us, in the form of song.”
“I hate all this stuff when you become the record label and businessman of the year. I’m not a fucking businessman.”
– Luke Haines
The wrestling album continues his relationship with indie label Fantastic Plastic, and he’s happy with things as they are; not for him the self-releasing, self-promoting ways of that new fangled internet thing. “I hate all this stuff when you become the record label and businessman of the year. I’m not a fucking businessman.” For Haines, the internet has limitations. “It just means theres a lot of crap out there. No-one’s monitoring it; it’s just 50 times more crap. And all these young bands who are becoming young businessmen… well, well done. You’ve got your own label and youve got 50,000 friends on Facebook. Is the music any good? No.”
Haines’ career to date, which spans more than two decades, is testament to the fact that he is, first and foremost, an ideas man. As such he’s suspicious when ideas become secondary to delivery methods. “It becomes about the medium rather than the art form. It’s cobblers. I could probably come up with a decent concept album, me and this tea cup, record it on a dictaphone, put it out and it would be better than most of that stuff. It’s not about technology. Technology is a false messiah. It’s about ideas. The interesting thing is going to be when everybody’s essentially releasing MP3s and MP4s which are going to become ephemeral. There’s going to be no kind of archive of this stuff. What’s going to happen when the technology changes again? You’ve recorded your entire career on a computer file which is now completely redundant.”
I tell him his new album came to me as a download. “That is kind of depressing,” he says. “But vinyl in this country is too expensive to do. And despite people saying there’s a kind of resurgence of vinyl, there kind of isn’t. It’s not actually true; it’s a myth, a media myth. You could put out some vinyl, but 100 people would buy it. It’s super-specialist. It’s specialist to the point where you will lose a fuck load of money. I’d rather not have to have an album available as a download; I’d rather it was all CD. But these are the concessions you have to make. It’s the way it is.”
Whenever he listens to music – only old stuff, nothing contemporary – he listens to CDs or vinyl. “I’ve never downloaded an album in my life. Why would I?” They might only be available as downloads? “Not the ones I’m interested in.”
Conventional wisdom now purports that music is, these days, all about live. “No, that’s crap. Totally crap,” he counters. “The live thing is totally diminishing. You get paid less now because there’s a recession on. Total myth. There are more artists. And yet there’s this ludicrous idea that you can go out, play live and make a living. I could do, but I’d have to do it 200 nights a year. And it would fucking kill me. Im 44 years old! I’m not going out on tour forever. Fuck that!”
So how does a musician make a living in Austerity Britain? “I would never release an album for free,” he offers. “If you make records, they have a value. If you release it for free you’ve totally fucked everything. You’re totally fucked. I, as you know, have to do three or four things; I write books, I do several things at once. And I probably earn slightly less than the fucking postman. It doesn’t matter; I don’t care. The point is, I do what I like. Which is good. I give it to the record label, they put it out. If they don’t want to put it out, fine.” He bellylaughs.
“It’s about ideas. If you have an idea, and its a good idea, a strange idea, if its artistically valid, theres still a way of getting it out there.”
– Luke Haines
And yes, he writes books. Two volumes of memoirs so far; Bad Vibes and Post Everything. “The first one covered a certain period and I wrote it as a comedy,” he recalls. “The second one, in a weird way, was more about the decline of the music industry. It covered that period where it ended, around 2005.” The whole music industry ended in 2005? “There was a golden age which I was lucky enough to get a bit of, from the early ’90s till the end, when all the money went and all the record labels went. That’s gone, that was a bit of history.”
And just in case there’s a lack of clarity on what he means by the music industry, he’s not criticising the majors. “I was never against the major labels; I was on a major label for 10 years, and they allowed me to do mostly what I liked, and most of the time major labels actually pay you while independent labels don’t. The one I’m on now is good and they do, but almost every other independent label I’ve been on have attempted to not pay me or have attempted to be entirely dishonest to the point of verging on criminal activity.” I mention that I’d heard talk of a music magazine that had folded at least twice without paying its writers, setting up under a slightly different name each time. “What’s happened there, you see, is that because journalists are so enamoured of the myth of independent labels, they’re now following the business practices, ie. going into total criminality.”
So nobody’s being paid for anything. Where does all this leave us? “I’m not a fortune teller; I don’t give a fuck! As I said before, it’s about ideas. If you have an idea, and it’s a good idea, a strange idea, if it’s artistically valid, there’s still a way of getting it out there. There’s still a way of getting people to buy into that idea and you can continue as an artist.”
The industry-centric discussion clatters over points and down a branch line to singles. “At least there’s one good thing about the music industry dying; you don’t have to do B sides any more. There was a point in the ’90s, especially when you were on the major labels, where you were having to do eight different B sides. All these formats… Jesus Christ! You’d record two albums, but the second album would be B sides and slightly substandard. It was getting slightly ridiculous.”
Fast forward to 2011, and is Luke Haines happier? “I am. I’m older, I’m a better writer than I used to be, I kind of know what I’m doing. I feel like I have my freedom. And I wouldn’t do anything differently. All those records stand up. I wouldn’t make an album – I wouldn’t be able to make an album – like After Murder Park now. Because I’m not as insanely angry as I was at that point. And I’m glad I was insanely angry when I was 26, 27, when I made that album. Thats a good age to be angry, and to have made a really fucking angry album. So I’m pleased about that. Just as I’m pleased about the first album being a bit fey, a bit of an indie album. It was the right record to make at the time. I’m glad I didn’t win the Mercury Prize” – for which New Wave was nominated in the awards inaugural year – “because it would’ve been weirder. I’m glad the second album was a professional rock sounding album; I got it out of my system and now I don’t have to do that any more. So now I can make psychedelic albums about wrestling. As for The Auteurs songs, I still play some of the songs live – the ones I can still do without sounding ridiculous.”
Does he ever go back and listen to any of his older material? “Nah,” he says, and then contradicts himself: “I listen to Baader Meinhof a bit, because I think that totally stands up as one of the best albums of the ’90s. No other fucker had the balls to do that. Someone wanted to do a musical version of Baader Meinhof in Germany!” He giggles. “I don’t know what the hell happened to it…”
His other outlet prior to his solo years, Black Box Recorder, reunited in 2009 for a one-off gig at London’s much-missed Luminaire, at which a couple of new songs were aired. But while the trio are still good friends – Haines met up with John Moore and Sarah Nixey the night before our chat – there are no plans to work together again. “They’re both songwriters and we tried to get back together and do another album, but everyone was pulling in different directions; everyone had their own songs and ideas,” he explains. We recorded a couple of songs, and accepted that we were grown ups, we didn’t need to be in a band, we’re too old to be in a band. I’m too old to be in a band. I’m 44. Who the fuck wants to be in a fucking band at 44? Fucking grow up.” Maybe the Rolling Stones? “Oh fuck the Rolling Stones. Who the hell cares about the Rolling Stones? Their last good record was a thousand years ago. With Black Box Recorder it was more important that we preserved our friendship than destroy it by continuing as a band.”
“I felt a kind of weird empathy with Gorgeous George. He was very gay; Im not. He was very flamboyant and camp, which I’m not.”
– Luke Haines
As for Black Box Recorder’s output, the first two albums, he says, are great, and the third one is good. “I like that they were recorded by a conceptual art power trio,” he grins. “Sometimes the concept was better than the actual music, but ultimately it was all good. The experience of being in that group was better than being in The Auteurs; it was good to have a group experience, of being in a band, even if it was a slightly weird band. That was mainly a fucking blast.”
Like Haines, Sarah Nixey has progressed to a solo career and recently put out her second album, Brave Tin Soldiers. “She’s making proper grown up songs,” says Haines. “And remember she wasn’t even a bloody songwriter when we started with Black Box Recorder. I don’t think she even had any intention of being a songwriter. And now she’s proved herself.”
Beyond The North Sea Scrolls, he says he’s working on another thing that he won’t say too much about yet, with an artist and a film director. He has his reasons for caution. “The film world, in my experience of it, is even more hardcore than the music industry; it takes a long time to get things done. There are more people. The more people are involved, the more there is riding on it and the more money it costs to get it made. It becomes all about the money.”
These days, Haines lives near Hampstead Heath, and he has no intention of leaving London any time soon, “not least because when your kids go to school you’re kind of chained somewhere. I don’t have any visions of skulking off to the countryside”. What’s the best thing about being in London? “Peter Cook did a thing about London, that was pretty much his walk from his house to the newsagent, and that was his London. And that’s pretty much my London. Out of the house to the Costcutter to get milk or whatever I need; a walk across the Heath to pick up my son from school. I only really exist within about half a mile. I tend not to travel too far from my house.”
Has parenthood changed – mellowed – him? How does he fit his writing around such day to day tasks as the school walk? “There’s a myth that you can’t get anything done when you have kids,” he says. “It galvanizes you to do more, because your time when you write or record stuff is more precious. But I was a lazy fucker. I could just piss about for weeks not doing much, going down the pub with John and we’d pretend to write songs, which would inevitably just be us getting slaughtered in the pub. But when time gets more precious you get things done. When you write a book you write every day, for three or four hours. Like (Jeffrey) Archer. He wrote some good books. You have to be disciplined; it’s kind of boring but true.” He describes the most exciting parts of the artistic process as being when he has the initial idea. “And, with books, when actually writing them. But the editing and the meetings are fucking murder.”
Ultimately if there’s going to be a Luke Haines Manifesto for life, it’d probably begin and end with this: “If you don’t like what you’re doing then you shouldn’t be fucking doing it. There’s no point. That’s the thing that separates artists from people who aren’t artists. And if you’re not being paid as much, you don’t just stop because all the record labels have gone. Then you’re not really an artist, are you; you’re just some bloke who did stuff because you had a record deal.” Somewhere, in another dimension, the stars of 1970s and early ’80s British wrestling are surely nodding their agreement.
Luke Haines’s Nine And A Half Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early ’80s is out now through Fantastic Plastic as a download and enhanced CD. The North Sea Scrolls album and a London date supporting it might just might happen during 2012. More about such things can be found on lukehaines.co.uk.